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Media Changes, Judd Zulgad Is Always Himself

“The key is this, the thirst for content is actually increasing. It’s not decreasing. How people want to consume said content is changing. But that’s exciting.”

Tyler McComas

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It’s August of 1989 at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the biggest and most respected newspaper in the Twin Cities area. Inside the halls, there’s an ambitious 19-year-old by the name of Judd Zulgad who’s just been hired as a clerk. Since the third grade, which wasn’t too distant of a memory for the teenager, he wanted to be in sports media. 

However, his journey into the business isn’t the glamorous beginning he probably hoped it would be. Essentially, he was the layout guy.

“I was doing jobs that don’t exist now,” said Zulgad”

He had to have photos sized. Sometimes he had to travel to the morgue to grab photos. He was at the bottom of the Star-Tribune. But he didn’t care. It was his chance to chase his dream.

By the late 90’s, Zulgad had made his way to the sports copy desk and then eventually started writing a sports media column for the newspaper. 

“I enjoyed that a lot,” he said. 

In 2003, Zulgad was assigned to help pitch in with coverage of the Minnesota Wild’s playoff run. It was expected to be brief, but the team surprised the league and made a run to the Western Conference Finals.  

“Then, the internet came around, and then it was an initial boom and then a crash,” Zulgad said. “Our publisher at The Trib, decided he wanted to compete to get Wisconsin readers. So he decided they needed a person to cover the Packers full-time. I got that opportunity for the Minneapolis paper.”

For the 2003 and 2004 NFL seasons, Zulgad was living in Green Bay and covering the Packers for a Minneapolis newspaper. Needless to say, the locals weren’t thrilled about the paper covering the Vikings’ biggest rival on a daily basis. In fact, a lot of fans were mad. But with a local base of Packers fans in the area, Zulgad understood the move and gladly covered one of the most storied teams in the league. 

After two seasons, the controversial experiment was dropped. In 2005, Zulgad was moved to the Vikings beat, working behind Kevin Seifert at the time. He did that for several seasons before finally moving to radio. 

“I came to SKOR North during training camp of 2011,” Zulgad said. “The station started in 2010 and was branded as 1500 ESPN.”

Today, Zulgad is still with SKOR North and is helping lead the charge of the station’s massive push towards digital. It’s interesting to think that the guy who started in the business with jobs that no longer exist, is now at the forefront of the industry with unique content tailored towards digital. 

But to those around him, his willingness and ability to adapt to the changing landscape of sports media is not surprising at all. 

“I think what makes it fun is that it changes, evolves, I love this,” Zulgad said. “The key is this, the thirst for content is actually increasing. It’s not decreasing. How people want to consume said content is changing. But that’s exciting. If you’re like, ‘well, I’m an AM radio person, that’s what I do!’ No! You are a creator of content and reaching people as quickly as possible is the most fun. Just because how it’s delivered changes and morphs, that’s not a bad thing.”

His thoughts on the changing landscape of sports media mirrors exactly what SKOR North has done with its content. The brand has gone from being just an AM radio station to something that can be consumed as a podcast, a TV show or a video on social platforms. 

“I think it’s fantastic,” Zulgad said. “And we literally get pictures of people who put us on their TV.”

With an extensive writing background, it would only make sense that Zulgad writes columns for SKOR North. But outside of that, he also co-hosts Mackey and Judd, Purple Daily and Judd’s Hockey Show, which can all be consumed via podcast. On top of all of that, he’s still covering games for the local teams.

His plate is full, seemingly everyday. But doing digital content as opposed to the strict clock of terrestrial radio, means he can more freely navigate the demands of his day. 

“The freedom of the podcast is great,” Zulgad said. “Keep in mind, for several years, Phil (Mackey) and I did a four-hour radio show. That’s busy. It started at 9:00 and went until 1:00. I have a lot going on but the freedom of podcasts is liberating.”

Zulgad is still a big believer in going to games. He wants to see the action in person, he wants to talk to people, it’s how he does his best work.

What also works for him is being the same person, whether he’s on a podcast or talking to a friend. His personality doesn’t change. Judd Zulgad is the same guy in every single format. 

“I basically talk to people and do the show very much how I live because I think for me, that’s what works. They’re going to be people that don’t like you, but even with that being said, they’ll still like that you are genuine and not trying to alter things.”

There’s a unique twist to Mackey and Judd. You may not notice it unless it’s mentioned on the show, but Mackey isn’t currently based in the Twin Cities. Instead, he lives in Seattle.

It seems like an incredible task to consistently have a great back-and-forth and put together great shows when your co-host is two time zones away. But not with these guys. They make it work. 

“The way I talk about this is simple,” Zulgad said. “Phil and I started to do a four-hour show together the day after New England beat Seattle in the Super Bowl. We did that show for four years and then a drive time show. Doing a radio show for four hours a day is an eternity. I liken it to bands that play small clubs. We didn’t agree all the time, but we got to know each other’s mannerisms, strengths, and weaknesses, so when Phil moved it didn’t change a thing. If Phil and I had been working together for six months and he moved, it’s probably difficult. It’s doable but difficult at times. But we are in lockstep. It’s as seamless as it could possibly be.”

At 52 years old, Zulgad can honestly say he loves his work as much as he did after his first big break. He’s stayed at the top of the game by adapting to all of the changes thrown his way. 

It’s helped he’s been so versatile as both a writer and a host. He’s excelled at both. And yes, his writing has made him a better host. 

“It helps me personally to sort my thoughts out and to take a path,” Zulgad said. “I find I’m at my best when I take a tactical approach to a topic, as opposed to hey, let’s just talk about this. My ability as a writer has allowed me to pick up on things and create a thread.”

SKOR North will continue to push digital. Zulgad will continue to help lead the charge. Not just because it’s the company’s vision, but because it’s his vision, as well. 

“The podcast gives you the freedom to only do segments on things you know that are hot topics,” Zulgadsaid. “People will say ‘you should talk about this more’ or ‘you should talk about this less’. When you’re doing a radio show it’s a lot more difficult to pick and choose what’s right. There are people who will say, you did an hour on the Wild? You’re crazy! But when it’s a podcast, you literally can cherry-pick the best things and have conversations that don’t go to break.”

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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